The one with the “Other Yates”

One of the highlights of this year’s Manila International Book Fair for me was meeting Alexander Yates, author of the novel Moondogs.

I’d started Moondogs some days before I was scheduled to interview him, but it was quite a hectic book fair  for me (lurking in the bargain bins did not help!) and I came to over a hundred pages by the time I sat down to do the interview.

But the hundred pages were enough to capture my attention. It was quite intriguing tale thus far: a kidnapping plot involving an evil rooster, a villainous cab driver, and a rich American businessman; a US Embassy officer leading a secret life; and a highly talented (if ragtag) special operations unit — all in one very familiar setting: the Philippines.

I got to the NBS booth in time for a bit of book talk — Alexander Yates with NBS merchandising director Ms. Xandra Ramos Padilla.

Here’s a bit of Q and A with Alexander Yates, both from the book talk and the interview I did after Alex finished signing books. “The Other Yates” is how he refers to himself, not to be confused with William Butler Yeats, and novelist Richard Yates.

Q. How did you start writing this book?
I started in 2004, when I lived here. I graduated high school in the Philippines; I met my wife here. Manila’s a city that’s very important to me and it feels like my hometown. And then in 2004 after college I came back and took a job at the US embassy and it felt kind of like I had come home even though I’m American. In the United States, I never lived there as a kid, so I always felt out of place, but then I come back here and I was very moved and happy to be back and and I started to write the novel.

Q. You also spent a lot of years moving around…
I’ve never really lived in one place too long. I was born in Haiti, my parents worked for the US government so every few years we had to move, lose old friends, make new friends. The Philippines I came to for high school.

Q. Now you’re back with a book. How does it feel to be back?
Very overwhelming. I’m really honored to be brought out. I’m so happy and thankful to National Bookstore for bringing me out. I’m so glad to come back to Manila. When I landed it had been six years but it still felt very familiar. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I came back.

Q.  What are your most memorable experiences studying and working in the Philippines? Are those experiences in the book?
Some of them are; not directly. People often ask, Are you one of the characters in the book? The book is not autobiography; it’s just fiction, there’s a kidnapped American and his son is supposed to look for him. There’s also an evil chicken on the cover, and there are some superheroes. It’s like a halo-halo of a book — it’s a mix of things, but the result is sweet even though the things are different from each other. I guess the most important things for me in the Philippines are the relationships: close friendships, a wonderful mentor who turned me into an artist — it’s really just being good friends with wonderful people.

Q. What is the significance of Moondogs in the story?
Moondogs is a kind of glowing light — it happens when there’s ice in the atmosphere. When I used to live in Manila, I saw moondogs a few times, and it’s always been something that’s very beautiful to me because of the bright moon and the distinct circling around. The novel’s kind of like that, there’s a bunch of things circling around the center.

Q. The characters in Moondogs seem to disappoint each other or betray each other often. Was this part of the story you wanted to tell?
It is. In the book the characters I think are good people doing bad things. I think it’s possible be good human beings and have good intentions but still to fail in your obligations to your loved ones. The characters are having real struggles, and in their struggles they’re failing sometimes.

Q. There’s a “comic book” part in the book. Are you a comic book fan?
Yes. When I was a little kid in Bolivia, in La Paz, where we had no television in English, we had no McDonalds or bookstores with comic books, and my father would go to the States on vacation and he’d bring me back Spiderman, X-Men, Ironman, and so comic books became all the pop culture to me. Comic books were the best thing ever.

Q. The “brujos” that make up Ka-Pow are an interesting element of the novel. What was the inspiration behind your “brujos”?
The brujos were inspired by the fact that my writing was terrible. I was writing the policemen as regular policemen for a long time — I mean, four years — and they were awful. They were kind of unbelievable, and I realized what I was writing was kind of like a bad comic book, and I thought maybe not change it from what it really is, just make it into a good comic book.

The brujos’ powers are kind of strange powers no one else has. I also wanted them to be kind of poppy and magical, but have powers that people hadn’t seen. I let the young boy in me come out to play, and that’s when the book started to work, with not just one side of my personality, but all of it, including that five year old boy that’s delighted by comics.

Q. What’s the story behind the woodcuts on the title page of the novel?
I wanted to keep it visual. Each woodcut goes with a character. I have a good friend in Veracruz who’s a woodcut artist and I gave her designs. I designed them but my designs were terrible. I gave them to her and she chipped them out. The woodcut itself is about as big as this table (BIG!), and it’s hanging on my wall. We did scans of each one, and we sent them to Random House for the book.

Q. You write like you know Manila, almost like a local, even. Would you consider yourself a Filipino?
Everyone’s been dancing around that question… There’s so many different ethnicities and races here — there are full-blooded Chinese and Spanish who are Filipino, so culturally I do feel Filipino but I’m not naive enough to consider myself Pinoy.

Manila feels like home but I’m still an outsider, kind of one foot in and one foot out. As much as I want to be, even though Manila is my hometown, I’m not a Manileno the way you are. I don’t have full access to the experience the way a local does, or a good understanding of the Filipino culture. I think I have as good an understanding as I can as a foreigner.

Q. Do you speak in Tagalog?
Hindi. I speak a little. I’m fluent in Spanish, and when I was younger, with Spanish and some words in Tagalog and English, I never had a problem getting understood. As a teenager your tendency is to do as little work as possible, and now I regret it. I’m studying a Rosetta stone. When you learn a language like Tagalog you learn a system of thought more than anything else. And that’s one of the reasons I feel like a foreigner. I’m reading Filipino as it’s translated to me, and not in the native language.

Q. What are your literary influences?
The books that influenced me most are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred years of Solitude” — mine is more like a little kid comic book version, because I’m not as good a writer as Gabriel Garcia Marquez — also Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” Also F Sionil Jose’s novel “Gagamba” — I read it when I moved here and it was important to me, so my novel is  paying homage and also stealing.

Q. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. I was the obnoxious kid in fourth grade who said I’m gonna write. I wrote a 60-page ripoff of Michael Crichton’s “The Sphere” and I thought it was genius. When I was sixteen I wrote a goth-y, angsty novel, and my English teacher in IS read it… I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Q. If you weren’t a writer, what career would you have pursued?
In the ideal version of myself I’d be in environmental science, because I’ve always been passionate about the outdoors. I’m a bird nerd and I’m very silly about them.

Q. What was your writing process?
It’s a lot of writing stuff that’s terrible, and then you get rid of it, and then you write stuff that’s less terrible, then get rid of it, and then it’s less terrible. There’s a lot of deleting — the way to write is to delete things; you have to delete them first

Q. How did you manage all the characters and the storylines?
FIrst I did the whole draft and it was very big and ugly, and then I wrote each story as a novel…. I was hoping the stories could be read individually and still make sense.

Q. How did you get the book published?
I was very lucky; I worked on the book during grad school, and my adviser liked the book so he sent it to his agent, and he sent it to another agent, and the agent already knew an editor who wanted something like this so she signed it quickly.

Q. What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’m going back home; I teach writing at George Mason University, and I’m working on two more books: one collection of short stories and one novel.

It was a lovely afternoon at the MIBF with Alexander Yates, and talking to him definitely made me want to finish the book. Which I did, after the book fair! I’ll tell you more about the book in my next post… and show you why my signed copy of Moondogs is extra-special! :)


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